Reading Obscure Jaspers III: The Saving Power of Reason, Research Time, 03/10/2014

Continued from last post . . . Karl Jaspers sometimes sounds like a twisted, atheistic version of Immanuel Kant in some parts of The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man. Of course, if Kant himself were to grapple with the ethics of nuclear warfare, he wouldn’t sound anything like what we read of him now. The whole concept of the sublime, for one, would be turned upside down and inside out once he realized that humans had the power to level casually an entire city in a moment.

Where he sounds like Kant is in his discussion of reason. Jaspers distinguishes two kinds of thought that are often referred to with the word ‘reason.’ One of these is the usual technocratic mode of thinking: knowledge is specifically segregated into specialities, disciplines, in which there is a continuum of amateurishness and expertise. This is the knowledge of goal-setting, of work and achievement, specific tasks and focussed knowledge procedures to carry out those tasks. We are setting out to act in the world such that we change it.

He was an expert warrior with a job to do, and at least
he had fun doing it.
This, says Jaspers, is precisely the problem when reason — its technocratic version, at least — operates in the age of the nuclear arsenal. Simply setting particular goals and developing the expertise to achieve them, what he calls the reason of cognition, is no longer adequate to the challenges we face when we’re capable of destroying the world. The solution lies in what Jaspers calls the reason of freedom. 

I’m still fairly early in the section of the book where he begins to describe this solution to all our technocratic impasses, but already he’s impressed me with the detail with which he’s managed to describe this kind of reasoning, which he calls, in a phrase that’s evocative to anyone who’s studied the major figures of German philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s, the saving power. 

This is how Jaspers also sounds at least a little like Martin Heidegger, in his discussion of the saving power. However, Jaspers is also more hopeful than Heidegger in this regard. Heidegger’s discussion of saving power was entirely pessimistic: he only ever discussed it in vague, suggestive terms, as if he couldn’t even articulate what kind of thinking would constitute this power.

That’s entirely appropriate to Heidegger’s late-career pessimism. He saw no alternatives in the world to the technological way of existence where everything was understood only as a resource, as a means to serve man’s ends and desires. The saving power of thought could only arise in authentic existence, of a people whose actions were a perfect resonance with being itself at both the individual and cultural levels. This was only attainable through many centuries of cultural continuity with a place or a land, achieving a kind of intuitive community of a people with its land through its perceptions, myths, and language. 

Probably the second-most awkward notion that Heidegger scholars have to deal with is that he thought only the ancient Greeks and contemporary Germans had achieved such authenticity. The most awkward notion for Heidegger scholars to deal with is that he believed the National Socialist movement had the most potential to express this authenticity politically. 

With the failure of this movement, as it descended into its own technocracy of totalitarian government, universal war, and genocide, Heidegger thought the saving power was impossible to discover, which is why he wrote so little about what its positive content could be.

Jaspers begins developing his alternative, the saving power of reason as freedom, in the last four chapters of The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man. The problem for this series of entries is that I’ve only just started reading those chapters, so aside from a basic framework of Kant-inspired intimations, I don’t know yet what Jaspers says about this conception of reason, its powers and potentials, or whether it ultimately succeeds as a saving power in the nuclear age. 

I can say, however, that it’s quite inspiring to read the book, and offers me an intriguing possibility to approach the style of philosophical writing with which I want to approach the Utopias manuscript over the next few years. To be continued . . . 

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